A sober warning about the Internet of Things

Marc Goodman’s newest book will leave you fearing the technology that surrounds us every day

Computer hacking (illustrative) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Computer hacking (illustrative)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If you’re trying to decide whether to bring your e-reader or a hardback on vacation, Marc Goodman’s new tome Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It could help.
By the middle of the first chapter you’ll be afraid to turn on your e-reader or laptop, and you’ll be looking with deep suspicion at your smartphone. Keep going, and you’ll be nervously eyeing your desktop, refrigerator and car.
Why the anxiety? Because, as Goodman gets around to summarizing, “We no longer live life through our own innate primary human sensory abilities. Rather, we experience it mediated through screens,” and increasingly through appliances with invisible connections to the Internet. Those screens and connections can be used against us.
Goodman’s background includes law enforcement and technology, starting with the Los Angeles Police Department and running through the FBI, and now as chairman for policy, law and ethics at Silicon Valley’s Singularity University, a think tank and business incubator.
He’s prowled the online bazaars of the Deep Web, e-places with names such as Silk Road and the Dark Market. There everything from stolen identifications to drugs, guns and child pornography are hawked between anonymous parties who pay using cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
His style is breezy but his approach is relentless, as he leads you from the guts of the Target data breach to the security vulnerabilities in social media, medicine, finance and even national defense. He gives scores of nods to the privacy concerns that arise when online data collection allows big business and government to know more about you than your mother does. His focus, though, is solidly on the underworld.
Future Crimes is at its most foreboding when it catalogues the vulnerabilities in the blossoming Internet of Things. Everything north of your cat’s litter box will soon be connected to the Web and controlled using smartphone apps. “So what could possibly go wrong?” Goodman asks.
For starters, manufacturers are using technologies that are easily hacked to connect appliances and vehicles to the Internet, Goodman says. An international criminal community, sometimes sheltered and even abetted by foreign governments, is already learning to hack connected vehicles – would you rather have your next car stolen or remotely hijacked? – and creep through online appliances into your phone, PC and other devices. And government is responding with case-by-case investigations and indictments that don’t begin to solve the root problems.
Goodman doesn’t stop with the Internet of Things, but storms ahead into the criminal potential opened up by emerging robotics, nanotechnology and biotech.
There he becomes most speculative and fascinating, as we are forced to contemplate a world in which the domestic terrorist or deranged outcast can ditch the gun in favor of made-to-order bacteria.
Goodman argues convincingly that we are addressing exponential growth in risky technologies with thinking that is, at best, incremental. His mantra is not that new stuff is bad, but that unexamined, unquestioning adoption of technology leads to a survival-of-the-sneakiest future.
He proposes solutions. Some you can adopt at home, like frequently updating software and using encryption settings that you probably didn’t know you had.
Others can only be achieved on a national level. How about a Manhattan Project for cybersecurity? Future Crimes does more than nod to the much larger question of whether the very nature of human life is about to change. As we are sucked deeper into our screens, as we begin to place connected devices on, and soon, into our bodies, and as machine intelligence inevitably surpasses human smarts, what will come of our cherished freedoms? For that question, Goodman has no bullet-point solutions.
He is raising the question, though, in a way that’s journalistically solid and firmly rooted in the here and now.
So maybe leave the e-reader at home.
Get the hardback this time. You can’t read it in the dark, but it isn’t going to compromise your credit card number – or your humanity.
(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS